Trusting God ‘in trouble and in joy’
Since childhood, I have often sung hymns composed by Anne Steele – hymns such as ‘Father of mercies, In thy Word’ and ‘Father what’er of earthly bliss’. I knew only that she was an eighteenth-century Baptist hymn-writer, who suffered a good deal of ill health. When I came across a bundle of her poems and letters in a library in Oxford, it was delightful to discover something more of her personality.
Anne had a sparkling sense of humour. She was a warm and loving family member, and a gifted poet who enjoyed a wide circle of witty and well-educated correspondents. She had a strong faith in the absolute sovereignty of God which empowered her to endure a great deal of painful illness with cheerfulness and grace.
Anne was born in 1717 in Broughton, a small village in the South West of England, twelve miles east of Salisbury, and twelve miles west of Winchester. The Particular Baptist Chapel in Broughton had been founded in 1653, with 111 members, nine of whom were baptised at the first meeting – an act of courage, as believer’s baptism was still illegal.
The work survived years of vicious persecution from 1660 to 1688. In 1699 Henry Steele, Anne’s great-uncle, became pastor; he ministered for the next forty years until his death in 1739.
He had made a fortune in contracting timber for the British Navy, and thus did not need to take financial support from the chapel. His nephew William (Anne’s father) assisted him in his business and in the preaching.
The Steele family was wealthy, and Anne was brought up in material comfort. In 1720 however, when she was just three and her elder brother five, their mother died. The following year their father remarried.
His second wife, like his first, came from a prosperous Particular Baptist family. In keeping with the Puritan tradition she kept a journal.
The entries show that Anne’s stepmother was a deeply devout woman, who took her responsibility for her stepchildren very seriously, and tried to treat them equally to the child she bore William, a daughter named Mary.
Membership at the chapel stood at around fifty-one when Anne was fourteen. The next year, she and her brother William both gave their testimony to the church meeting, and were baptised along with nine others.
In 1739, when Anne was twenty-two, her great-uncle Henry died. Her father, William, had been assisting him and preaching regularly for many years, and he now took over the pastorate.
The chapel was enjoying a time of growth, and in 1745 the membership peaked at ninety-one. William continued to support himself through the timber trade, but he also became a devoted pastor.
His second wife threw herself into the life of the church, and his children were keen members. Anne soon began supporting her father’s preaching ministry by writing hymns appropriate for his sermons, and to fit the varying needs of public worship.
By the time Anne was twenty she had commenced a courtship with a young man called Mr Elcomb. When he drowned in a bathing accident, a friend sent a messenger to tell the Steeles of the tragedy.
He wanted them to know straight away, because he was unsure of ‘how far he (Elcomb) may have prevailed in the affections of Miss Steele’ (Anne).
The Baptist historian, Joseph Ivimey (1830), romantically wrote that this tragedy happened the day before the wedding of Anne and Elcomb. It became popular to think that Anne’s nerves never recovered (and that the hymn ‘Father whate’er of earthly bliss’ was her response to the tragedy).
But there is no evidence of any engagement, and no evidence that she suffered from a perpetually broken heart. When Anne was twenty-five, she received a proposal of marriage from Benjamin Beddome, the minister of the Particular Baptist Chapel at Bourton-on-the-Water, but she declined it, and it seems that she declined a later proposal as well.
Anne deliberately chose to remain single – indeed some of her light-hearted poetry and prose pokes fun at the cares and tensions of married life.
In the following poem she teases ‘Melinda’ (a pseudonym for her step-sister) about her visit to London and the admirers she collected. In contrast, Anne refers to herself as a ‘nun’ and her rural room at home as a ‘cell’ – a light-hearted reference to her single state.
From driving rattling up and down
Amid the pleasures of the Town
Elate with Conquest (fate how glorious)
Melinda now returns Victorious
Three hearts subdued too much by half
D’ye think such News can make me laugh
While I, poor solitary Nun
Moping at home can’t rise to one
Three the News says and one before
‘Tis some time since you counted four
You make such haste it must be more
Perhaps by this time half a score
Methinks T’would be but just and due
To spare your Sister one or two
But this is only spoke in jest
On second thoughts and those are best
Your Vict’ry since I cannot share
I want no slaves that you can spare
Lone quiet in a humble Cell
Will suit my temper full as well …
So Anne remained at home with her father and stepmother after her brother and step-sister married. They regularly entertained visitors from their circle of Particular Baptist friends and relatives.
Friendships were maintained and cultivated by means of correspondence. Anne became the central figure in a small circle of dissenting Christians who exchanged lengthy letters and poems.
Their writing mingled classical allusion with elaborate descriptions of the beauties of nature, and was often playful and humorous in tone. Letters included spiritual matters, poetry, and discussions of a range of issues – and were sometimes written in a formal ‘high style’ that make them mini-works of literature.
Anne’s gift of writing blossomed in a way that might not have been possible had she accepted Benjamin Beddome’s proposal and become a busy pastor’s wife. Moreover, her indifferent health would probably have collapsed altogether under the rigours of pregnancy and child-rearing.
She was in many ways privileged. She had a comfortable home, a warm family circle, and the freedom to visit friends. In her many sicknesses her stepmother proved to be a devoted nurse.
Anne was rarely able to enjoy her quiet life in Broughton with full health. Recurring malaria and a string of other problems meant that she often endured acute pain.
Anne came to believe that this was a means to bring her closer to God. She was forced to rely on him in prayer, and she found that he granted her a calm, resigned contentment.
The Particular Baptists’ convictions regarding God’s control of all things thus had a very practical outworking in her life. Several of her best hymns, and those that have remained in use, take up the theme of providence:
What’er thy providence denies
I calmly would resign,
For thou art just and good and wise;
O bend my will to thine!
What’er thy sacred will ordains,
O give me strength to bear;
And let me know my Father reigns,
And trust his tender care.
If cares and sorrows me surround,
Their power why should I fear?
My inward peace they cannot wound,
If thou, my God, art near.
Dependence on grace
In 1760 when she was forty-three, a two-volume set of Anne’s hymns and poems was published. As was common at the time, she used a pseudonym, and she chose the classical name Theodisia.
Thus when she died in 1778 she was as yet unknown to the wider Christian public. This anonymity was just what she had wanted during her lifetime. Two years after her death, her identity became public knowledge when Caleb Evans republished her poems and hymns.
Anne was genuinely humble. She knew that the material comforts she enjoyed, and her writing ability, were gifts from God. Her humility enabled her to be patient through suffering.
Cheerfulness was the keynote of her character. In extreme sickness, she was always concerned for the comfort of others. She was ready to join in light-hearted fun, and her letters are witty and humorous. But she always remembered that life is short, and that we must be ready to face God.
Writing to her young niece Polly one New Year, she characteristically exhorted her not only to think of the New Year, but to prepare for eternity – Polly should never begin a day without asking God for grace and help.
Anne lived out this advice. She relied moment by moment on God for grace, and in her writing tried to encourage others to do the same. She demonstrated that a Christian can indeed praise God ‘in trouble and in joy’.